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“I still have flashbacks when I pass by the places we used to go, and avoid others when I can.”

By Erin Harbaugh

Like most, I had always come to understand abuse as being physical, or perhaps verbal, with the signs being obvious and overt. When I married a man whom I thought I truly loved, and who loved me unconditionally, little did I know he would begin a campaign of abuse and terror without my realizing what was even happening. In the end, my life would be completely shattered. I lost my identity and my sense of self, and had nobody to turn to. 

So how did this even happen? And how could this happen to me?

I am a smart, savvy, articulate, and self-aware woman. In my mid-30s I had achieved financial and career success. I had a huge network of friends and a close relationship with my family. I had a high-powered Washington career, rubbing elbows daily with the political elite.

I had forgone marriage and starting a family to focus on my career, until the perfect man—or so I thought—entered my life. We talked about our hopes and dreams of traveling the world together, getting married, and having kids. My closest friends and family quickly became his biggest fans, due to his charming demeanor, interesting stories, and enormous charisma. I got to know his friends and family, whom I genuinely liked. None of the traditional red flags seemed to be there. Furthermore, nobody I knew ever saw anything wrong, either.

Although we had known each other for several years and kept in contact on social media, we didn't actually start dating until later. He was quick to profess his love for me, as well as his admiration of my caring nature and empathy. It was incredible how we seemed to have so many interests in common, even the obscure. It was uncanny. Little did I know he had been plotting my demise even before putting me on a pedestal.

I thought our wedding day was the happiest day of my life because I’d finally found the person I was meant to be with.

After a year of dating, traveling the world together, and being showered with attention, affection, and generous gifts, he proposed. Without hesitation, I said "yes." We were married in an amazing wedding six months later. I thought our wedding day was the happiest day of my life because I’d finally found the person I was meant to be with.

However, as soon as we were married and he moved into the home I had owned for 10 years, the dynamics of our relationship slowly started changing. He would suddenly become enraged by unwitting "slights." The fits of anger were unpredictable, increasing in frequency and intensity over time. Name calling, throwing objects at me, putting me down, and intense, unrelenting screaming became near-daily occurrences. I rarely argue with anyone, and never understood what I could have said or done to provoke such a response. His behavior was so unpredictable, I had to walk on eggshells. Often I slept on the concrete floor of my office because I was so shaken by his aggression. 

I felt like I was living with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

He would often leave the house in the evening to meet up with friends for a drink on a weeknight, not to return home until 2 or 3 a.m., completely intoxicated and enraged. My calls and texts during these 10-hour absences were never answered. Concerned about his well-being, I stayed up until his return—and was often greeted by yelling, insults, and objects hurled my way. I would defend myself against his ridiculous accusations that I was responsible for his bad behavior. I was so "messy" that he couldn't stand to be in the house, or I hadn't been paying enough "attention" to him because I was working too much. I rarely raised my voice, and never reciprocated kinetically or insulted him. He would bully and torture me almost every night, eventually rolling over in bed and falling immediately asleep, while my mind was trying desperately to understand this inexplicable behavior. I rarely slept, and when I could, I would wake "too late" because I was "lazy."

I realized I was in a constant state of confusion because I was not only sleep deprived, but I could never find anything! Apparently my lack of organization was to blame for not being able to locate basic personal items. Every time I left for a short business trip, he would "graciously" organize my belongings. After a while, my home had been completely re-ordered, and I would occasionally find my belongings, including those with personal significance and value, in the trash.

Eventually, he just checked out of the relationship.

I tried to be proactive in communicating constructively or finding mutually agreeable solutions to his concerns about my disorganization or other peeves of his. However, he would never engage in such conversations, and when I pressed him to try to resolve things, he would get up in the middle of the conversation and walk out of the house. If these conversations became heated and leaving the house was inconvenient, he would lock himself in a room and refuse to speak to me.

Eventually, he just checked out of the relationship. Even though he was working, he refused to contribute to household expenses, including the mortgage, because it was "my house" and he wasn't responsible for it (nor was he "benefitting" from it, because it was in my name). Furthermore, I wasn't "responsible financially, and not to be trusted with money." His solution was to take over all of the finances, but given his lack of responsibility, I refused. I became suspect of his motivations; I didn't trust him anymore. I was exhausted from the constant aggression, anger, blame, and name-calling. 

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He would never accept any responsibility for anything, even when he clearly had made some mistakes—occasionally I had to literally pay money for the consequences. I pleaded with him for months to "love me or leave me," because he was only hurting me. But I was married to this man and I had no means of forcing him to leave the house. I even offered to leave if he continued to pay the mortgage, but he refused. Since he never physically assaulted me, I had no grounds to remove him. 

I felt like a hostage in my own home. 

I never shared my issues with anyone. I had chosen to marry this man and as far as I was concerned, this was my problem.

Right before the holidays, I returned from work and he and his personal belongings were gone. It was like a scene from a Lifetime movie. He refused to let me know of his whereabouts, because he suddenly became the "victim" and he had to get away from me. I came to learn he was telling others that I was mentally deranged and on the verge of a financial collapse, and he had to get away from such an "unhealthy environment."

I spent the holidays completely isolated from my friends and family, because they refused to talk to me. When I reached out to explain that my husband had left me, that he had been abusive, and that I was scared and all alone, doors were slammed in my face, phones were hung up, and very few friends would talk to me. I found out that my husband was spending the holidays with my loved ones, but they wouldn't speak to me.

Then the hostility and abuse by proxy began. There were four attempts to have me mentally institutionalized and I was attacked by my best friend when I tried to explain what had happened to me. I tried to tell them about the evidence of infidelity I found under my own bed, the constant anger and beratement, and the fact that my husband had moved in with another woman.

Through the help of a therapist and other mental health professionals, I was able to understand that I had been living with a personality-disordered person who had no empathy and no remorse. I had to accept that he never loved me, and that his motivation for marrying me was to suck me dry—mentally, physically, financially, and emotionally—and to gain access and prestige vis-a-vis my social network. I learned that the constant manipulation of my physical environment, the lies, the deception, his insistence on my "mental instability" and denial of my reality, and the constant silent treatment were all forms of manipulation and abuse. I was told that my husband was dangerous and the only way I could protect myself was to go "no contact," because any information they obtain about you can be used in some manipulated form against you to cause further harm. Such harm resulting from toxic relationships is commonly referred to as “narcissistic abuse.”

It has interfered with my ability to trust myself and others. But I'm determined not to let one person ruin my life.

A year and a half later, I'm obviously divorced, and have no contact with this man. He still lives in the area, and there's always the fear I'll run into him. Like most who get sucked up and spit out in these relationships, I developed complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), which is a result of chronic abuse over a period of time. I still have flashbacks when I pass by the places we used to go, and avoid others when I can. I have nightmares, and sometimes sleep with the lights on. I find it hard to explain my experience, because few understand. This keeps me isolated, and impedes my healing. I've been able to repair some of my relationships with friends and family, but many I have had to let go. It has interfered with my ability to trust myself and others. But I'm determined not to let one person ruin my life. I’ll never be the person I was before, but I am hoping that eventually I will come out better and stronger. But I know that it will take a long, long time.

I wish a few years ago I knew what I know now. If I only had the awareness, this could have been prevented. So I'd like to leave you with three takeaways:

1.) Narcissistic abuse is real, and it is devastating.

2.) Failing to be aware can lead you to become abused without even realizing it’s happening.

3.) These relationships lead to inevitable harm and often C-PTSD.

What is the best part of this? It's preventable! Awareness is the best prevention. And if you know someone who has been through this kind of experience, please understand that it is real. It may not sound like it, and you may not understand it, but if you care about anyone who has experienced this abuse, don't deny their reality. It has been denied and discounted already. Don't contribute to their pain. Learn, listen, and support.